CW: trauma, death
Mariel Fechik’s new chapbook, Millicent, is a lyrical work which explores several central themes, including the speaker’s family (particularly the maternal side) and their Jewish identity.
I love the delicate way in which Fechik writes about the question of intergenerational trauma. “My family history is that of” is a brutally honest way to begin this chapbook, and I was entranced by its slow, melodic quality. In this opening poem, the speaker charts the maternal side of their family—their grandmother, mother, and themselves, and eventually their own daughter. It’s a good opening poem, setting up many of the central themes Fechik returns to throughout the chapbook—namely her family, and in particular her grandmother. But I am fascinated by this singular mention of her daughter: “waiting for the day / I am washed down / a drain / telling my own daughter / to quell her grief.” Even though this hypothetical daughter isn’t mentioned throughout the rest of the poems, I come back to her through each reread, wondering how she informs—and haunts—Millicent.
In comparison, the brief “My grandmother could not stop reading Holocaust books” felt more compact and hard-hitting, and “Other Side” is a touching portrait of grief— and moving past it—for the speaker’s grandmother. At first, the speaker spends “two years in limbo / the word grandmother puckered in my fist,” describing their grandmother as an “other side to birth,” but in those two years the other side too becomes the other side of birth, growth. There is something hopeful about this poem, as it positions the speaker on the road to recovery, growing past the traumas in “My family history is that of.”
In the next poem, “In September,” there is still that note of haunting, though more subtle. I especially loved these lines: “I took yellow streetlamps / into my chest, / housed their light / until it, too, flickered / out.” This imagery has so much warmth in it, but also a poignant sadness in its last parts.
Fechik’s poems are unafraid to converse with other poets throughout this chapbook, most obviously in her three “after” poems: “Lake St. Mary” (after Gianna Russ0), “Glow Worms” (after Claudia Cortese), and “The Woods” (after Mary Oliver’s “The Moths”). “The Woods” is definitely one of my favorite poems in this chapbook, although I acknowledge my bias since I’m a huge Mary Oliver fan and consider her poems almost to be a genre in themselves. Fechik captures that delicate attention and adoration of nature that makes Oliver’s poems so wonderful, but once more adds that note of haunting: “Sometimes you are in the woods and / the trees become a mosaic of winter sky / and other times there is only the ground.” In Oliver’s original poem, “The Moths,” the title insects are so vivid, so loud in the space they consume in this poem, “all around me in the forest” with wings “that burn so brightly” and sleeping in “dark halls of honey,” but in “The Woods,” only one of these insects inhabits the poem: “something fluttering against you in the dusk. It is / either grief or not. A moth towards the / light.”
Throughout this chapbook, animals in general, not just the moths, are treated with a certain delicacy. In her prose poem “Mare,” which follows the speaker’s childhood nightmare of a terrifying horse, I’m inevitably reminded of Henry Fuseli’s painting The Nightmare. In the painting, a woman lies prone on a bed underneath a demon, while an unnaturally wide-eyed horse stares out at the viewer from behind a curtain (yes, I get the nightmare/mare wordplay!). The horse in “Mare” feels even more confrontational, but for a moment, it seemingly disappears, replaced years later by “a nightmare with black birds,” only for the poem to suddenly end: “The horse kicks-” Two different animals, horses and birds, both known for their movement—a mobility which the speaker in their helpless, sleeping state does not have. I loved the sudden urgency of this poem, how well it encapsulates the fluid time and space of dreamscapes.
The writer’s exploration of animals further includes “Acadia,” a poem filled with nature imagery and probably my favorite in this chapbook, although it’s hard to pick. It has some of the most brilliant imagery in Millicent. This one focuses on the speaker’s mother, enraptured by the sight of a deer and her fawn together. I love these opening lines:
On the morning my mother saw the deerand its fawn, her throat was an alarm
It paints such an interesting visual, abstract as it is.
In comparison, “Appalachia,” while haunting, also makes me laugh a bit because of the way it plays on old adages, such as “you can lead a horse to water, but you cannot make him drink,” instead opening, “A horse leads me to water and I cling to his / sides.” In this poem, the horse does drink, though not because the speaker makes him; he “inhales long, gasping / mouthfuls of the forest’s backwash / overflowing with bottles and pine. The horse / and I lead each other home to sleep.” Growing up so close to the Appalachians, I loved how this poem felt like it was drawing me back home, but it also carries a surreal quality, as if it exists in another universe. Again, a piece of beautiful imagery:
... A rabbit sets itself on fire before dawn, oranges andreds blooming like spring blossoms after amist. …
Fechik mentions the idea of other universes multiple times throughout Millicent. “Alternate” is my favorite example of this, and it hits hard, going outside of the limited spaces of family homes and foggy mountains to something more encompassing in its trauma: “Every phone call is the news of someone’s death.” The speaker explores different possibilities in the other world she constructs, but I still find myself struggling for the meaning. What about these other worlds are so special?
Throughout reading this short and brilliant chapbook, I was fascinated by the subtle ways in which each poem connects to each other, and by Fechik’s use of different structures and forms. For example, “Acadia” feels like a journey, punchy couplets and one-liners bloated with white space, and “Making Soup” feels similar, moving gradually rightward as each successive line becomes shorter, reminiscent of a spiral on the page. Some of the poems are blockier, including a handful of prose poems. It’s been a while since I’ve read poetry split up into sections, and I really liked both the way Fechik employs this technique, and the sense of narrative it lends to her poetry.
“Gifted Bodies,” the chapbook’s closing poem, is perhaps the most innovative in structure out of all the poems Fechik has given us. It alternates between single lines and indented couplets (picture an MLA citation with generous spacing and less soullessness), something which I haven’t seen before. It reminds me of dialogue. Fechik again questions time and space, in this poem exploring how to measure time.
There are more things I want Fechik to explore in Millicent. Who was her grandmother, really? She seems like she’s left a trauma-shaped hole in the speaker’s life, but that hole could have been filled in. And Millicent’s sense of location—I am still so enchanted by her treatment of nature in “The Woods” and “Appalachia,” haunting and sad, but also adoring. The speaker really does seem like they live in a different world from the rest of us, and I need to taste more of that world. There are a number of clear motifs—horses, rain, the grandmother—but the threads are perhaps not woven as tightly as they could be, nor as unified, and I find myself grasping.
There remains an impressive honesty which colors the poet’s voice in each poem, imagery that shifts and refocuses the reader’s perspective into the brighter and newer. Millicent is a spellbinding chapbook from Mariel Fechik, and I’m excited to see more of her work in the future.
Mariel Fechik is a writer and musician from Chicago. She is a poet and writes music reviews for Atwood Magazine and Third Coast Review. Her work has been nominated for Best of the Net and Bettering American Poetry, and has appeared in Hobart, Tinderbox Poetry Journal, Cream City Review, Glass: A Journal of Poetry, Rust + Moth, and others. She is the author of Millicent (Ghost City Press, 2019) and An Encyclopedia of Everything We've Touched (Ghost City Press, 2018) .
You can order Millicent here!
Caroline Mao is a writer and student at Mount Holyoke College who enjoys fiction of all kinds, post-19th-century art, and smiling at every dog she sees. Her Twitter is @northcarolines.